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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How can professional development advance nonprofit performance and ensure sustainability?

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Professional development (PD) is the "process of improving and increasing capabilities of staff through access to education and training." PD is crucial to keeping the right people working for your organization.

According to Guidestar, there are three reasons why PD is extremely important. First, it helps with staff retention rates. When staff are happy and feel good with not only the work they are doing, but know that they are appreciated and are shown that their work matters, the likelihood of them sticking around in their role is much higher. Second, better results for the organization as whole. When a nonprofit leader invests in the PD of their employees, it will have significant positive effects on fundraising and donor involvement. Lastly, investing in PD means better-educated and more motivated employees to help reach the mission for which the organization is striving.​​​​​​​

While conferences were once the only idea in gaining professional development skills, peer-to-peer mentoring is shown to give the highest output of learned skills. According to a Stanford Social Innovation Review survey, 70 percent of social-sector leaders report that they learned their leadership skills outside of formal training; 67 percent identified "exposure to challenges and career transitions as development opportunities."

Performance evaluations are an imperative aspect of leading and growing. Professional development is a crucial aspect of advancing a nonprofit's mission; however, identifying the exact need and the correct form of development needed and for whom it is needed is essential. Performance evaluation should give staff the opportunity to set a goal to make change and to help track how they are doing on delivering what it is they promised. Evaluations should not be about power, judgment, blame or failure.

Professional development can be costly at times. However, training can positively influence the bottom line. In Nonprofit Quarterly, Jennifer Amanda Jones said, “Organizations that can regularly access training, can improve governance, program outcomes, fundraising and community engagement. Legal assistance and training regarding compliance can increase overall performance and decrease the potential for lawsuits or mismanagement.” The professionals who work for your organization, who are knowledgeable in subjects such as taxes and laws, will be better apt and able to rise to the challenges as they occur and will ultimately support with the sustainability of the organization.

Peer-to-peer learning models is a great way for staff to mentor each other and either learn a new skill or strengthen a previous skill. Peer-to-peer learning is a valuable way to teach and learn new skills without costing the organization much more than an employee’s normal salary. Peer-to-peer learning will also help to create a community of trust and respect amongst each participant.

Lunch and Learns are an inexpensive form of professional development that organizations should offer. Lunch and learns are a helpful way for learning to occur within the organization that not only give staff members an opportunity to learn a new skill, but it also is a chance to strengthen leadership skills. These sessions are to be less formal than daily operations and if possible, conducted somewhere outside of the office, for example at a coffee shop, neighborhood park or restaurant. A lunch and learn event is an opportunity for coworkers from across the organization to meet and share a skill that they are experts in. Lunch and learns help staff to learn more about other people’s tasks and responsibilities, can help them to be more flexible, more responsive to changes and better able to step in when others may be absent.

Collaborating with those who work in the organization, board members and other local organizations are a great way to offer professional development. Often, the board members are multifaceted individuals who have many different skills and experiences. Local organizations in the subsector may have different skills, workshops or knowledge that they are willing to share. Use the resources that are available to you.

Conferences or programs are great options for professional development, but they are not the only options. PD should not be something that is put aside due to budgeting or even budgeting misconception from the public. These tools are essential in keeping the organization running and advancing the mission. Whether staff will be attending a conference, or training put on by an outside organization or done in house with other staff members, executives need to ensure that the learning is offered and available to staff to advance nonprofit performance and ensure sustainability.   

Erin Larkins is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from California State University East Bay and is currently a Work Based Learning Coordinator and Case Manager for at risk youth for Mt. Diablo Unified School District in Northern California. Between education, employment and volunteering for local organizations, Erin found her passion for helping the youth in her community which led her to the program at ASU. 


ASU Lodestar Center Blog